logging and the trade in illegally sourced timber is a major illicit industry
with supply chains stretching across the world. Its prevalence is due to a
range of criminal behaviours in violation of local, national and international
laws that, for various reasons, go undetected or unpunished.
is a primary facilitator of the illegal trade in timber. The global cost of
corruption in the sector is at least USD 29 billion per year, according to INTERPOL (2016). Bribery, fraud,
abuse of office,
extortion, cronyism and nepotism are common in the forestry sector and involve
government officials, law enforcement officers and logging company officials (INTERPOL, 2019).
animal trafficking, the legal and illegal timber trades are deeply intertwined
(UNODC, 2012). Timber trafficking typically involves
criminals working in legitimate forestry businesses, corrupt officials and
government agencies who work together to launder illicit timber products into legal
markets. Criminal groups are attracted to timber
trafficking due to the high value of timber and the low risk of penalties.
Illegal logging and
timber trafficking often occur in countries with poor governance, weak law
enforcement and high levels of corruption (Baker, 2020), as well as in
conflict and post-conflict areas, especially where large tropical rainforests
remain. The forestry sector is poorly regulated or monitored in much of the
world, even where strong policies and laws exist on paper. This enables large-scale
illicit trade to occur.
▼ Scale and demand
Globally, as much as 30 percent of the timber harvest is illegal.
According to INTERPOL, the illegal trade
in timber is valued at up to USD 152 billion per year. In parts of the Amazon, Central Africa and
Southeast Asia with large tropical forests, 50 to 90 percent of logging
activity is illegal (see box, source: Congressional Research Service, 2019).
Box 1: Illegal logging in selected countries
|Country of origin
||Estimated % of illegal logging
|Democratic Republic of the Congo
consumer demand for timber products, particularly rare hardwoods, is driving
over-exploitation of forests globally (UNODC, 2020). Demand is greatest in Asian
countries producing tropical hardwood furniture for consumers in the U.S.,
Europe and Japan.
term that covers a range of tropical hardwoods, is estimated to be one of the highest
value and highest volume of illegally traded wildlife product globally.
▼ Infographic: impacts of timber
trafficking has numerous detrimental effects on sustainable and equitable
development, including the following (Dawson,
2020; UNODC, 2012; WWF, n.d.):
- contributes to deforestation, desertification and other forms of environmental
- reduces biodiversity with the potential for species extinction;
- destroys habitats;
- increases human-wildlife conflict due to the destruction of habitats.
- robs communities of the opportunity to harvest renewable forest resources and
achieve sustainable livelihoods;
- deprives governments of billions in fees, taxes and customs revenues;
- often overlaps with other illegal activities involving drug trafficking, cattle rustling, wildlife
trafficking, human rights abuses and serious corruption;
- fuels conflicts in areas where armed groups engage in timber trafficking and the
taxation of the movement of illegal timber harvests, such as in Myanmar and
- destabilises ecosystems by disrupting the water cycle.
▼ Case study: Red sanders trafficking in India
as 200 tonnes of CITES Appendix II protected red sanders (also known as red
sandalwood) are seized from India’s illegal timber trade each year. Red sanders
are trafficked to meet high demand for sandalwood carvings, furniture and
musical instruments, as well as medicine and cosmetics in China and the Gulf
The trade is immensely lucrative: one tonne of ‘A
grade’ quality red sander logs are estimated to sell wholesale at USD
130,000–200,000, while lower ‘B grade’ red sanders can fetch USD 35,000-65,000
per tonne. In destination markets, red sanders furniture may be
sold for prices ranging from USD 13,000 for small chairs to millions of dollars
for ornately carved pieces.
international trade in red sanders is restricted, and the production and sale
of products made from these species introduces significant risk for financial
institutions and other private companies. According to media reports, only a
tenth of smuggled red sanders are estimated to be seized. Seizures are
reportedly often released upon payment of bribes.
The lucrative nature of the trade
organised crime groups, corrupt officials and others: politicians,
mid-level police, customs officials, and actors in the Tamil film industry
have all been arrested for involvement in red sanders smuggling. Corruption
- Forestry officials bribed to allow poachers access to protected areas.
- Police at road checkpoints bribed to allow movement of logs.
- Customs and port officials paid to provide falsified documents and intentionally
limit physical checks of suspect containers.
In May 2020,
authorities in India seized 1.5 tonnes of
red sanders alongside USD 1.3 million worth of methamphetamine, opium paste,
heroin, MDMA (ecstasy), amphetamine and methaqualone. This illustrates
convergence with drug trafficking networks. Red sanders smuggling routes also
converge with cigarette smuggling routes to the UAE and wildlife trafficking
routes from India to Asia.
Note: The above details are contained in a
United for Wildlife Taskforce Alert (AL-00021) circulated to Taskforce members
in October 2020, summarising current knowledge and trends on red sandalwood
trafficking. Used with permission from the author.
▼ Weak enforcement of timber regulations
scale and seriousness, timber trafficking remains a low priority issue for most
countries. Not enough appears to have changed since UNODC (2012) noted that:
…“underdeveloped legal frameworks, weak law enforcement and poor
prosecutorial and judicial practices, as well as a lack of
understanding of the different factors that drive wildlife and
forest offences, have resulted in valuable wildlife and plant
resources becoming threatened by, inter alia, illegal logging,
illegal trade in timber products… The gaps in domestic and
international control regimes, difficulties in identifying illegal
commodities and secondary products, along with intricate trafficking
routes, have resulted in the inability to effectively curtail the
While awareness of the risks of timber trafficking is
increasing, political will and capacity to address the problem are
lacking. Australia, the EU and the U.S. ban the import of illegally
harvested timber and wood products, but the effect of this ban is
nullified by the countries that do not ban illegal timber, such as
some Asian countries.
Timber certification schemes
One method for private firms to ensure the legality of timber supply
chains are certification programmes. These place the onus on the
sustainable manage concessions and voluntarily submit to inspections
supply chain to ensure only legal, sustainably harvested wood enters the
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO),
more than 50 certification schemes globally, responsible for overseeing
with timber trade regulations in areas with weak forestry controls.
Many schemes work with
local communities, governments and companies through a multi-stakeholder /
Collective Action approach to secure the supply chain.
While the schemes represent an important tool in forest management and
are considered generally effective, they remain vulnerable to
susceptibility of officials to bribes and payoffs to permit illegal
complicity in the clearcutting of rainforests, intimidation of local
communities, and threats and violence against forest activists, forestry
officers and park rangers.
Even well-known manufacturers may be caught up in timber trafficking
failures in the certification process, including bribery and corruption
Examples include an investigation
by the NGO
Earthsight into IKEA furniture, with some commentators
questioning whether forest
certification actually works (Dasgupta,
well-known and established manufacturers of musical instruments and
products may have unknowingly used illegally sourced timber in their
due to the complexity of supply chains and lack of real traceability.